Liveblog : Death of the Library ?

September 14, 2007

I am attending a two day workshop called “Sustaining the Digital Library“, one of a handful of tame academics in a room full of librarians and IT folks. In an hour or so I will be sitting on an “Academic Panel” along with a chemist, a lawyer, and a Professor of Italian. (This sounds like the start of a joke … “there were these four academics sitting on a panel, and the first one says..”). We are supposed to tell them what life is like at the coalface, and what we really want.

For years, university libraries all paid huge sums to big publishing houses (Elsevier, McMillan, Springer etc) to buy scientific journals. Many librarians, and and many researchers, saw this as money for old rope. As the online world grew, and the idea of open access publishing developed, it looked like the academic publishing business would collapse.

This hasn’t happened. The publishers have got their act together, providing some very nice online journals, and getting together as a cartel to define an industry-standard way of referring to any digital object – the DOI system. Our libraries now pay huge amounts of money for online susbscriptions. Meanwhile of course everybody is asking “why are we taking up all this real estate with useless old books ?” and suddenly its the libraries that look under threat rather then the publishers..

The library fight back involves the idea of establishing Institutional Repositories – publish your paper in the University Library system … Today, John Houghton from Victoria University in Melbourne reported an economic study which suggests that such repositories, assuming open access, make economic sense, as companies and government departments will find it easier to get at what they want. There are now many such Institutional Repositories in place, but the problem is scientists don’t use them. Why would I do that ? Who will read it ? I’ll try to get it in Nature, thank you very much.

Peter Bunemann suggested another future for the library – hosting, curating, preserving, and marketing databases. Not the ginormous sky surveys that I love, let alone the humongous particle physics type databases, but the hundreds of wee collections that academics love to make, and that are becoming increasingly important in research. Now that sounds good. But maybe Elsevier will get there first and make us an offer …